Model looks, pop star lover, millionaire lifestyle - and hated by every soccer fan. But is David Beckham reviled for a moment of madness on a foreign field or does he tap into a deeper unease about what it means to be a footballer and an Englishman? Dave Hill has spent a month on the trail of the Boy Wonder turned bad

Dave Hill
Friday 14 August 1998 23:02

The coach pulls up, there's a flash of blond hair and then the screaming starts - the screaming of adolescent females in exquisite agony: "Beckham! Come here, Beckham!" It's Norwegian agony, verbalised in English as the "Boy Wonder" of Manchester United arrives to display his gifts against SK Brann of Bergen. He waves at his admirers as he hurries by. "Beckham! Beckham!"

It's only a friendly fixture, but it's the host club's biggest party of the year. Demand has given supply a proper hiding with all 16,000 tickets sold weeks in advance and touts with Manchester accents doing swift business on the streets. Big-time English football is lapped up in Norway, and United vie with Liverpool as the most adored team of all. It's a close- run thing: both clubs have Norwegian players and United's include striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But David Beckham has brought a torrid new dimension to their football love affair.

For days before his arrival, Beckham-mania had raged all over Bergen. In the fine medieval squares itinerant English traders with eagle eyes and fags stuck in their faces sold Beckham flags, Beckham hats, Beckham badges, tucking profits into pockets where the Treasury won't find them. Outside the team's hotel teenagers hung over crash barriers, the girls decked in eye-liner and Beckham merchandise. In the centre pages of the local paper, Beckham was pictured striding past the fish market pursued by children and swinging a carrier bag. "Beckham in Bergen!" bellowed the front page. Inside, all was fevered speculation. What was in the carrier? Who had he bought it for?

The match began at seven and Beckham spent a drizzly first half sitting on the subs' bench. When he came out after half-time he did little for 10 minutes except amble near the right- hand touchline looking gorgeous as the girls declared undying love. Then he began to get the ball, began making a few holes in home team's defence ... and then the screams were drowned out by the local lads' boos. Unlike many of their fellow townsfolk they had chosen not to support the English team, but had no qualms about aping the behaviour of a lot of English fans.

For the other United players, the Brann match was just the last date on their pre-season tour of Scandinavia, a chance to hone form and fitness for the serious business of the new domestic season. For Beckham, it was also a preview of the treatment he is going to receive from fans in his homeland. Up and down the country posses of male youths and supposedly grown men are gearing up to goad him loudly, cruelly and relentlessly for a moment of misjudgement on a foreign field which he will never, ever, be permitted to forget.

No Englishman, or English woman, will need reminding of that moment, but visiting aliens may appreciate acquaintance with the facts. The crucial incident occurred a minute or two into the second half of England's second- round World Cup match against Argentina in St Etienne on 30 June, when Beckham, sprawling face down on the pitch following a foul by opposing captain Diego Simeone, flicked up his right foot and deliberately caught his assailant on the leg. This rash retaliation was spotted by the referee who duly brandished a red card, obliging Beckham to leave the field and abandon his team-mates to an unequal struggle - a struggle which, despite an epic rearguard action, they ultimately lost.

These were emotional events. There was weeping, there was wailing and a truly awful gnashing of patriotic teeth - especially in the tabloid press. Combining the two traditional responses to English sporting failure, the rhetoricians of the Fourth Estate hailed a glorious defeat and launched ruthless recriminations at the same time. The Mirror's headline said it all: "Ten Heroic Lions and One Stupid Boy". With football, it is even harder than usual to define the point when the papers cease merely to reflect public opinion and begin moulding it. Whatever, in the ensuing days the "stupid boy" felt the force of national sporting sentiment at its most vindictive - and during the cricket season, too.

One of the best-publicised incidents was a quite literal example of gallows humour at the Pleasant Pheasant pub in South Norwood, south London. Its reported architect, a 32-year-old scaffolder called Lee, constructed an effigy of Beckham and strung it up outside the pub in full view of the street. Following complaints, police officers were summoned and the grim replica lowered, but this mild brush with the Met did not dilute the delight of landlord Steve Snadden: "It was my proudest World Cup moment. I laughed out loud when I saw it. The punters are just doing what everyone in Britain feels." The same went for Lee: "Everyone in the pub has been fuming about Beckham's behaviour. He needs teaching a lesson."

Lee the scaffolder had made the same unflattering assessment of Beckham's defining characteristics as The Mirror: idiocy, puerility and in need of firm correction. This was certainly the view of five-year-old Michael Williams of Stokenchurch, Bucks, who rang the The Sun and said: "I think David Beckham should be sent to his room with no supper." Michael was not the only small boy so disillusioned. The full depth of Beckham's plunge from English football's firmament was brought home to me at a seven-year- old's birthday tea. The cake bought for the occasion was no ordinary birthday cake, but an official England Football Cake lovingly created by Elisabeth the Chef (Est 1928) and topped with images of three England stars in action poses. But although the confection was, no doubt, as fresh as the day it was stacked on the supermarket shelf, in the minds of those who gathered around it so expectantly, it was already past its sell-by date.

"Eugh! Beckham. I'm not eating that!"

"I want a bit with Shearer on!"

"It's Beckham, man. No thanks!"

Woe for the patissiers of Elisabeth the Chef. Woe, too, for the local Tesco, its remaining stock of England Football Cakes irrevocably tainted. But, most of all, woe for David Beckham. Elisabeth the Chef and Tesco plc will soon absorb the cost to them of his reverses. Beckham himself, though, has barely begun to pay.

Many have urged forgiveness: a poster outside the Mansfield Road Baptist Church in Nottingham proclaimed that "God Forgives Even David Beckham". But a different spirit guides Shane Barber, a 38-year-old West Ham supporter and editor of the fanzine On A Mission From God. Knowing that, next Saturday, Manchester United will be the first team to visit West Ham's ground in the new Premier League season, Barber had the wheeze of producing 10,000 red cards and distributing them to fellow Hammers fans with instructions to wave them when Beckham ran on to the pitch. That would teach him: "He lost us that game, there's no doubt about it," he complains. "That's what ordinary football supporters think, and they are entitled to show how they feel about it." Barber had previously expressed similar sentiments to a female presenter on a London radio station. What if, she asked with some horror, such antics ultimately forced David Beckham to leave the country? "If only we could get rid of him that easily," Barber replied.

What a wretched fall from grace for a young man whose career rocketed almost exactly two years ago, following a goal he scored in his club's first match of the season before last. From just inside his own half, Beckham looked up, spotted that Wimbledon's goalkeeper had wandered forward from his line, and sent the ball screaming over his head and into the net. The last act of similar audacity most could recall was attempted by Pele during the 1970 World Cup - and he missed.

The goal confirmed Beckham's arrival as one of the brightest young stars of the modern Manchester United, an English football institution that attracts endless adulation but also widespread dislike. This is not only because of their long history of triumphs but also because of their enduring glamour, an asset which survived 20 years of, at best, sporadic success in the Seventies and Eighties and has sustained their position as the best-supported English club. "Everyone is jealous of United," says Lee Hodgkiss, press officer of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association. "Even when we're not the most successful club, we're always the biggest."

It has been David Beckham's blessing and his misfortune to have become the most colourful contemporary personification of the Manchester United phenomenon - a position formerly held by George Best. Belfast-born Best was English football's first pop star, a man who utterly altered the image of the game's top exponents. Previously, they were seen as working-class heroes, the salt of the earth, men with little use for words such as "champagne" or "discotheque". And, of course, none of them had sex. That all changed with Best. Today, champagne and discos are standard parts of football life, and players have sex all over the tabloids, all over the world.

David Beckham is currently our sexiest pop-star footballer. At 24, he has known little but success in his United career. At international level, he quickly became regarded as a future England mainstay, and, lest we forget, during the World Cup, his pearl of a free-kick against Colombia helped England win the right to play Argentina.

But Beckham's fame has outgrown the field of play. He has also scored (as they say) with a young woman called Victoria Adams, better known as Posh Spice. Their romance and planned marriage have expanded Beckham's celebrity beyond the sports columns and on to the gossip and fashion pages, too. In the latter case, his image differs from those of other England players who have been pursued by publicity. Pre-World Cup paparazzi scoops about Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham revealed the conventional laddish excess of late nights and too much beer. By contrast, Beckham was snapped outside a restaurant with Victoria on his arm and his slim loins wrapped in a Jean Paul Gaultier sarong.

In the build-up to the World Cup, Beckham was the England player most feted by commercial interests, with the possible exception of captain Alan Shearer. His name and likeness add cachet to a range of toys, books, videos and video games. Tonsorially striking, he has been sponsored for the past year by the makers of Brylcreem, thereby refreshing the credentials of a product whose credibility with sports-minded young men had eroded to near extinction. Brylcreem's public relations spokesman, Peter Shilland, describes Beckham as, "simply the perfect choice to be the Brylcreem boy of the Nineties. He's done wonders."

His most conspicuous sponsorship arrangement, however, is with the sportswear manufacturer Adidas, which pays him handsomely for wearing its top-of- the-range Predator boots. It is the measure of Beckham's standing that he was picked to star alongside Kluivert of Holland, Del Piero of Italy and Zidane of France in the company's global pre-World Cup advert, a hi-tech monochrome effort which showed him curling a cross into a hole high on a target wall.

Such deals, added to a bonus-boosted salary from his club of certainly no less than pounds 20,000 a week, account for an income which has been reported to be pounds 8m a year. All business deals are struck on his behalf by his agent, Tony Stephens of the West Midlands-based TSA Associates, which also looks after David Platt, Dwight Yorke, and England's goal-scoring partners Alan Shearer, and Michael Owen.

It is hardly Beckham's fault that he is young, rich, good-looking, hugely talented, wildly successful and going out with a Spice Girl. But it has all helped create a climate of resentment and lack of forgiveness. Even before his sending-off, his exploits had turned the vision of other young men green and caused older folks secretly to crave the meteor's fall. One reason why the torrent of dislike released by his dismissal against the "Argies" has been so bitter is that the bile had been welling for some time, and not just in football circles.

One of the most strident examples emerged

from the leader column of The Daily Telegraph. "Beckham's silly little, smart little kick at his Argentinian opponent was what's wrong with the national character," it raged. "This Gaultier-saronged, Posh Spiced, Cooled Britannia, look-at-me, what-a-lad, loadsamoney, sex-and-shopping, fame-schooled, daytime-TV, over-coiffed twerp did not, of course, mean any harm. Like almost everything stupid that makes English life less fun than it could be and should be, it was only `messing about'. As always, other people have to clear up the mess."

Somehow, Beckham has become emblematic, the brand icon not just of Adidas but also of Manchester United plc and of that most amorphous and media- driven of marketing concepts, Cool Britannia. As such, he has become a sort of figurehead about which the nation can loudly disagree, and his ups and downs a touchstone of the nation's fortunes.

The shiniest faces of New Football can be seen on display most days at Manchester United's Cliff Training Centre in Salford. There, happy family groups cluster, chatting with the club officials who usher the stars past. It's a strange scene of secular genuflection, autograph books flapping in the slipstreams of fast cars: BMWs, Mercs, four-wheel drives. The stars step out, lob their keys to the valet, with his hosepipe and sponge, nod to the fans and head off to get changed, walking their bandy footballer walks. The arrivals of most are greeted with shy silence. But when Beckham purrs through in his slick, black soft-top, there are shouts from the feisty Man U girls. "Hey, Beckham! Come 'ere! We love yuh!"

Beckham wears blue flares, a blue jersey, a blue peaked cap and shades. A nifty little sponge bag is tucked under his arm. He poses quickly for pictures with a party given special access for the day and pushes through the swing doors. Even the young apprentices turn their heads. Outside, the family fans explain that they've forgiven. "He was daft to get sent off," says an eight-year-old called Steven, wearing the new United replica shirt with "Beckham" on the back and clutching a file dotted with United stickers. "But he's brilliant, ain't he?" "The lad made a mistake ... " mum and dad, chip in, "but he's said he's very sorry, and that ought to be enough."

He has said sorry, too: to his fellow England players, and to the nation via The Sun. He'd been topping up his income with ghosted World Cup columns for that paper (which may help explain the fury of The Mirror), but wasn't paid for an exclusive account of his misery and contrition, which was also circulated by the Press Association. But while it might do for United fans and most other folk, it won't do for partisans like Shane Barber. "I know blokes who can't afford to go to football any more," he reasons. "So when someone who makes the money Beckham does is representing my country, I don't expect to be let down."

Barber has dropped his red card plan, because, he explains, it will be more important for West Ham fans to get behind the new star players their club has since acquired than to make special provision for their opponents' leading villain. Anyway, he reckons, it would be a waste of time. "Beckham won't play that day," he conjectures. "He'd get stick even without my red cards. We've never liked him at West Ham."

There's a special reason for that. For some West Ham fans the fact that Beckham represents Manchester United at all is a damning case of cultural apostasy. Although he has supported United since childhood, he was born in Leytonstone, east London, in West Ham territory. Later, his family moved to leafy Chingford in the heartland of cockney Essex, where he attended the local secondary school. His parents, Ted and Sandra, still live there. The nastiest reports of anti-Beckham feeling have been of the hate mail and verbal abuse directed at them. Hammers ultras are among the country's most parochial, and Beckham's northern affiliations strike them as unnatural and ungrateful: imagine Grant Mitchell running a pub in Hull.

Although not known as a hard man, Beckham's intense competitiveness also has its particular drawbacks. In the past, he's been provoked by hostile fans, returning their jeers with gestures when events on the pitch go his way. He is seen by some as sneaky, which is why his punishment for the kick aimed at Simeone was regarded as an overdue comeuppance, albeit badly timed. Such indiscretions qualify appreciations of his gifts, his fine running, pinpoint passing, rapier crosses and shots at goal.

Even among some United fans, Beckham is, to a small but discernible degree, a player on probation. North-south antipathy plays a shadowy part in this. Lee Hodgkiss of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, implicitly acknowledges its existence, even as he stresses that Beckham is admired, and "United through and through" - another Beckham ad for Adidas took the form of a mock film biography, detailing his schoolboy dream of growing up to wear the celebrated Red Devils shirt. But another United fan, Ashley Shaw, who is also the editor of Whatever, a new monthly magazine covering the Manchester cultural scene, brings a writer's scepticism to the matter. "It doesn't help that he's a cockney. In the Eighties, we all hated cockneys 'cos they'd come up here waving their wads around when we were all hard-up - that cockney flash thing."

The world has become a more complicated place for a young man who, just a few years ago, used to earn a bob or two collecting glasses in the bars at Walthamstow dog track. At United, his talents were nurtured under a youth development programme that counts as one of manager Alex Ferguson's finest achievements. The thrilling Welsh international, Ryan Giggs, remains Ferguson's model for how a precocious young footballer should avoid the more garish pitfalls of fame. Some sources suggest that he would have been happier if Beckham's relationship with the Spice Girls had remained restricted to his stereo. If so, you can see his point. Victoria Adams has, predictably, become a catalyst for heightened anti-Beckham abuse. It was the theme of some of the most unpleasant abuse he was subjected to last season. To the tune of "Go West", opposing fans have chorused that, "Posh Spice is a dirty slag".

New Football has yet to accommodate the philosophies of New Man. Neither has Old Football lost its ancestral suspicion of any hint of deviation from masculine convention. The press chose the word "petulant" to describe his French folly, a term loaded with connotations of spoiled girlishness - a rather apt insult, in some fan's minds, to aim at a pretty man with a taste for fancy clothes. How Beckham's enemies would love to denigrate him as a "queer", and how infuriating for them it must be that he confounds their narrow notions of manliness. Beckham is 6ft tall, wiry and strong and the boyfriend of one of the country's most celebrated "babes". No wonder the barmy armies of British Blokedom have got it in for him.

The stage is now set for the real trial of David Beckham, and it might be very ugly. There was a taste of it during Sunday's Charity Shield match at Wembley when Beckham was booed by Arsenal fans every time he touched the ball. His was one of the less rusty performances in United's 3-0 defeat, but in a glorified friendly on neutral territory. Bryan Drew of the National Criminal Intelligence Service has told The Independent of his concern that "the Beckham factor" could trigger football-related violence which had seemed consigned to the past - or at least to the streets of Marseilles. Meanwhile, we await the full implications of all that has occurred for David Beckham himself. The pre-World Cup Adidas advertisement which now looks most unfortunate was a poster which appeared only in London. Its message was brash and boastful: "Historians take note - that's B-E-C-K-H-A-M."

How much does it matter that history has taken note for the wrong reason? Maybe not as much as we might think. Colin Clarke, account director at Leagas Delaney, the agency which makes the Adidas ads, looks on the bright side: "Adidas has made a comeback as a brand and that poster reflected its new confidence. Kids respect that. They don't like conservatism. They respect confidence and risk-taking. That's why we use David."

This season Beckham's dazzling deeds will be the more captivating because a streak of self-destruction has been sighted underneath. That is now the essence of the Beckham phenomenon and the reason he has become the conduit for such extremes of national applause and disapproval. That's what you get for being the shiniest pop star of modern English football. Are you feeling sorry for him yet?

Captions: David Beckham gets the red card in the second half of the second round match against Argentina in St Etienne on 30 June

The boy done good (clockwise, from top left): wearing that sarong with Victoria Adams in Nice; the young United supporter in Chingford; celebrating an important equaliser against West Ham in his first season; post-World Cup, leaving home for training; the sublime free kick against Colombia that helped put England through to the next round; the Brylcreem boy

Gallows humour: `It was my proudest World Cup moment. The punters are just doing what everyone in Britain feels,' said the landlord of the Pleasant Pheasant when one of his customers strung up an effigy of Beckham outside the pub

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